September 4, 2023 - 1:00pm

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has reportedly proceeded at a more rapid pace in recent weeks, notching up some noteworthy successes. Last week, Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Robotyne, after which White House spokesman John Kirby praised their “notable progress” over the previous 72 hours in a southern offensive near the Zaporizhzhia region. 

Meanwhile, over the weekend, Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy said that his country’s forces had successfully breached Russia’s first defensive line near Zaporizhzhia and that propitiously for his side Moscow had only committed 20% of its time and resources to each of the second and third lines. However, despite the most recent news indicating that the momentum is with Ukraine, it would appear that its allies are seeking not to raise hopes but, instead, to manage expectations. 

Yesterday, former British general Sir Richard Barrons wrote in the Financial Times that Ukraine’s counterattack will not only fail to throw Russia out of the country, but was never even expected to do so. Rather, it has demonstrated that Russia can be defeated, albeit next year or in 2025. 

Former US Ambassador to Nato Ivo Daalder last month told the Wall Street Journal that a similar realisation had taken hold in the US administration as officials understood that “Ukraine’s not going to be regaining all its territory any time soon.” A US intelligence assessment predicted that Ukraine will fail to reach the key logistical hub of Melitopol, while Western policymakers and military strategists are, according to the WSJ, already thinking ahead to next year’s spring counter-offensive. 

There are multiple reasons for the slow progress in Ukraine’s counterattack, not least the scale of the challenge. As Sir Richard notes, progress made in the south this summer amounts to approximately eight miles of regained territory, with another 55 miles to go if Ukraine is to meet its much-vaunted goal of reaching the Sea of Azov and cutting the land bridge to Crimea. 

Additionally, Ukrainian forces have had to battle against Russia’s well-established and extensive network of fortifications, including mines, anti-tank ditches and “Dragon’s Teeth” barricades. Ukraine’s recently dismissed Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov has complained that a square metre of territory can contain as many as five Russian mines. This has significantly slowed the progress of Ukrainian forces Tarnavskiy reported minefields trapping Ukrainian forces for weeks as infantry sappers attempted to clear an assault route on foot and Russian troops targeted vehicles using drones and shells. 

That is before turning to issues with the supply of munitions and training. The US will not start training F-16 fighter jet pilots until October and Danish Acting Defence Minister Troels Poulsen has predicted that Ukraine will only start to see results early next year. While 63,000 Ukrainian soldiers have undertaken training in Nato countries, time pressures mean this has often amounted to little more than a basic “crash course”, with Ukrainian soldiers reporting debilitating disconnects between Nato exercises and the realities of the frontline. 

Last week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba launched his own defensive operation, telling critics of his country’s counteroffensive to “shut up” and “try to liberate one square centimetre by themselves”. The most recent progress should not distract from the likelihood that this will be one in a series of counteroffensives, imitating last year’s pattern of progress in the autumn followed by a winter stalemate and more significant movement in the spring. This is unlikely to be the last time Ukraine will have to justify its slow progress in the war.